Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Xbox Live: party like it's 2005

Last night I met up online with Kieron and John. We had a plan.

On April 14, Microsoft is turning off the original Xbox Live servers. After that date, it'll no longer be possible to play original Xbox games online - unless you go through some sort of unofficial LAN link. It's the end of countless classic experiences.

Xbox Live was amazing. Online gaming beforehand (at least on consoles) was normally an afterthought, bolted onto a game designed for party play. It was hampered by needing to accommodate for dial-up users, and with a lack of expectation that the console would be permanently connected. That's not to say that great games didn't exist - Phantasy Star Online would argue that - but because of the inconvenience, I didn’t play them that often. Chu Chu Rocket and PSO were about as far as I went. With Live, though, game designers started to exploit the medium properly. Project Gotham Racing 2 was the first Xbox game I played online, and I was amazed by how smoothly it worked. Not only could I join a random game and race against people worldwide, I could also talk to them as I did it. Plus the game downloaded leaderboards and my friends' best times, even when I was playing the single-player game.

Online functionality was increasingly included in games throughout the Xbox's life. It evolved from additional single-event versus modes, through dedicated party modes, to cooperative modes through the single-player game. Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow was a highpoint of the last of these.

To capture the past for one last time, we met up armed with our copies of Halo 2, PGR2, and Outrun 2. It was odd not being able to carry on chatting as we moved from game to game. It was annoying to have to sit and wait for updates to be installed for each game as we tried to play it - though bearing in mind that my broadband line now is 40 times faster than the one I had when I first got Live, I'm not going to complain too much. Online gaming's come on a long way since, with better options and play modes. But none of this mattered for what we played.

Halo 2 is still great. We played custom games amongst ourselves, since we didn’t all have the expansion maps installed and without these we couldn't join matchmaking. Rockets are great, and much better than their Halo 3 variants. Going back to Halo 2 only served to show how Halo 3 didn't really evolve the game that much, if anything adding too many options. Having said that, Halo 3 is obviously a direct replacement, and the loss of Halo 2's online mode won’t mean that there's nothing similar to play.

That’s the case for all the games we played, really. Project Gotham Racing 4 does effectively make PGR2 online obsolete, though I reckon the range of cars in PGR2 is slightly better. I don’t like the bikes in the later game either. Outrun 2 is obviously replaced by Outrun Online Arcade, though with different courses meaning the game's not identical. OOA has got one thing in common with the earlier game - there's never anyone online.

Farewell, original Xbox Live. You'll be missed. A little.

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